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Catharsis in Psychology: Theory, Examples & Definition

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  • 0:05 Definition of Catharsis
  • 0:30 Theory
  • 1:50 Examples of Catharsis
  • 2:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Peggy Olsen
Catharsis is the Greek word for cleansing and is used in psychology to explain the process of rapidly releasing negative emotions. In this lesson, you will learn about catharsis theory and take a quiz.

Definition of Catharsis

Catharsis is the process of venting aggression as a way to release or get rid of emotions. Have you ever been so angry that you went outside and yelled or hit a pillow? Psychologists call this method catharsis. You may have heard someone say something was 'cathartic,' meaning it released emotion. For example, if you are angry you might hit something or scream, and that might make you feel better.

Theory

The thought behind catharsis theory is that feelings build up and create pressure if not vented, in the same way air builds up in a balloon until it bursts. Releasing emotions decreases the pressure or tension in the person so they have fewer negative emotions and are less aggressive.

Sigmund Freud was the first to use catharsis theory in psychological therapy, although he gave up on cathartic therapy and spent more time on psychoanalysis. The theory states that expressing or getting out one's aggression and anger should reduce the feeling of aggression.

The bulk of research on catharsis theory hasn't done much to back it up. Venting aggression does not appear to reduce future aggression. In fact, it might actually make a person angrier. Studies have demonstrated that expressing anger created more anger or hostility when compared to groups that were not permitted to express anger. Despite the opposing evidence, many people still do believe aggression reduces frustration and future aggression.

In therapy settings, catharsis is more than just venting anger. Instead, it's a re-experiencing of a traumatic event and expressing the strong emotions that are associated with them. Therapies that emphasize emotions, such as Gestalt therapy, create role-play simulations to facilitate safe expression of emotions.

Examples of Catharsis

Though little research has supported the efficacy of catharsis, here are some examples of it being put into practice, some of which you might even find familiar:

  • Bill and Rosa have noticed their son has been violent with his younger sister so they buy him a violent video game so he can get rid of his aggression that way.
  • Julia is angry because her mother will not allow her to go to the party, so she goes to her bedroom, slams the door, and punches her pillows.

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